If Game Wikis were a natural successor to game magazines in providing support for players seeking information about games they are playing, Let’s Play videos follow on the tradition of ‘over the shoulder’ spectators in the arcade. Arcade sought this phenomena desperately, for nothing drove coin drops quite as effectively as watching someone else play and desiring your turn. Indeed, the origin of the attract mode that plays between the title card and high score table was precisely to encourage someone to give the game a try; a demonstration of the game being played by someone who does not exist...
We did not make friends through over the shoulder spectating in the arcade, but we became more comfortable among the others in these spaces. More than that, some of us strived to be good enough at a game to gather a crowd, a kind of micro-fame that we did not think motivating yet valued when we got it. One of my fondest recollections of my time in the arcade was when a crowd formed as I was ‘clocking’ Nemesis (Gradius outside of Europe), because no-one had seen anyone get that far. It wasn’t why I played the game, but it certainly added to the savour of my victory!
Collecting Likes on a video is psychologically similar, yet is also stripped of the human context. One person watching you in the arcade felt satisfying; one Like, by comparison, feels pathetic. What the video is doing is not so much connecting people as manipulating our natural desire for recognition by quantifying something that, if the arcade experience can be trusted, was validating even at the scale of the individual. Amplified by the global breadth of the internet, the volume of possible connections is massively expanded even as the significance of those connections is hollowed out to a mere façade of human contact.
To be sure, as a substitute for attract modes, Let’s Plays are vastly superior, for both the game developers and the players. There is something positive going on here in terms of helping share new game experiences. Yet I cannot shake my suspicion that reducing the value of our participation to a number - much as with the reduction of our labour to wages - undermines the conditions for equality by stratifying our status. There is still a great deal of criticism levelled against class systems in the context of money economies. Perhaps we should be less enthusiastic about creating new classes based upon attention economies.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #76, part of a ten part mini-serial on Gamer Cyborgs.
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